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Fornication Culture, The

by Oswald Sobrino


This essay examines the current disastrous state of Western sexual lifestyles, especially in the United States.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


27 - 31 & 44 - 47

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, April 2003

In 1968, a year filled with war, social upheaval, assassinations, and rebellion, Pope Paul VI shocked many by reaffirming the Church's traditional teaching that each instance of the marital act must remain open to life. Of course, the sixties had already rendered the term "marital act" quaint by sundering any cultural link between sex and marital commitment. Since 1968, millions have come of age and been initiated into the sexual practices of post-sixties American culture which now unfortunately include: widespread fornication by both genders; the popularity of oral sex, documented in the media, even among teenage school girls; the increasingly popular view of homosexual activity as a normal option; widespread sexual cohabitation not only in private quarters but even in college dormitories; the unquestioned use of contraceptives as a right of passage; and the feminist canonization of abortion as a fundamental civil right. The marital outcomes have been disastrous: staggering rates of divorce and, within the Church, especially in the United States, a skyrocketing number of annulments.1 These disastrous marital outcomes in turn spawn children scarred by divorce, some of whom refuse to even consider marriage as an option.2 These are all lost generations. They are lost morally, culturally, and socially. In the promiscuous Western nations, birthrates are dramatically down. Many remain childless throughout their lives; others have only enough time and opportunity to bear a small fraction of the children prior generations proudly sired. We have hit bottom. Hopefully, hitting bottom will awaken the lost generations to what they have inflicted on themselves and what irresponsible parents, the scandalous example of siblings, and even negligent clergy have inflicted on them.

This essay will examine the current disastrous state of Western sexual lifestyles, especially in the United States. It will also sketch the new paradigm based on old values that is necessary to dig ourselves out of this pit. It is not an academic matter. It is a matter that is of deep personal meaning because it affects our personal destinies and the worth, meaning, and dignity of our brief lives on earth. For Catholics and other traditional Christians, it is a matter of faith that our sexual conduct can affect our eternal destinies: destinies either closed to the fullness of goodness and love, or open to the beatific vision. True love, the love, which the gospels tell us is the essence of God, is not found in current Western sexual practices. On the contrary, what goes by the name of love in modern lifestyles is in many ways a direct mockery and inversion of genuine love. This moral inversion has consequences on overall personal integrity in other areas. Loss of integrity in personal intimacy understandably leads to loss of integrity in professional and academic pursuits where personal honor is also replaced by convenience, conformity, mediocrity, and egotism. The old cliche that the personal is the political confirms a diagnosis that would shock those who in the sixties celebrated "free love": a diagnosis that points to traditional moral values as the only definitive remedy. The new paradigm sketched below will be specific in its recommendations. Our specific acts determine our lives. Consequently, to change the course of our lives and our culture, we need to map out new kinds of specific acts and social practices, some of which will be comfortably familiar to older generations and some of which will require new approaches in sex education and marital preparation.

Contraception has created a fornication culture spanning all the way from early teenage years to mature adulthood (and even into the ranks of senior citizens who have decided to imitate their children's lifestyles). Certainly, throughout history, the powerful forces of sexual attraction have sought relief outside of marriage. But the picture not too long ago was quite different even in the United States. Early marriage was the norm. The picture of the young couple starting their new family was the romantic ideal, the rite of passage sought eagerly because the culture defined it as a mark of personal success. The older single woman was viewed as an "old maid"; the older single man was viewed as an eccentric or worse. Today, in the United States, the ages for first marriages are the highest in history. Recent research indicates that the age for first time marriages for males is now 27, the highest in American history.3 One researcher gave two reasons for this result: males do not need to marry to find a sexual outlet, and males do not even need to marry in order to find a "wife."4 Sexual cohabitation provides a "quasi-wife"5: a regular sexual outlet, a socially convenient escort, and the economic cooperation and pooling of resources once the exclusive benefits of marriage — albeit in a highly unstable form.

Formerly, American culture's ideal bride was a virgin. Today, the typical American bride marries much later and is not a virgin,6 and may very well have sexually cohabited with several other men in addition to the groom himself. Thus, fornication has been normalized. It has been rendered culturally acceptable and even expected. In a fornication culture, many young people don't worry about saving themselves for marriage; they worry about catching up with peers ahead of them in sexual experience. Even the current usage of terms like "healthy" and "normal" now imply premarital sexual experience as a sign of maturation and personality development. How has such a radical cultural change occurred? The one word answer is contraception. Originally and naively envisioned as a practice to benefit already married couples, contraception became the brass ring for those seeking sexual freedom from marriage. From males seeking sexual gratification to females seeking to obtain and keep boyfriends, contraception, especially the highly touted "pill," became the foundation for a new fornication culture.

Economics plays a major role in this mentality. Economic considerations, seldom highlighted, influence a wide range of decisions in the fornication culture. Both males and females pursuing higher education for career preparation have lost the fear of a disruptive pregnancy. Sexual cohabitation with its 24-hour sexual access no longer poses a grave risk of pregnancy. What nature and tradition tied to procreation has been ripped out of its former place and given a life of its own. Sexual cohabitation reduces the cost of living by sharing resources with no serious danger of unwanted pregnancy. Moreover, as shown in a recent survey, American males prize gaining a steady sexual outlet without risking a financially messy divorce that can threaten their present and future assets.7 In the midst of this radical cultural change, one aspect of American culture remains intact: the concern with financial self-interest. Sex has become a commodity, as opposed to a commitment. Sexual access has become a marketable good circulating in multiple transactions in which the male typically plays the role of consumer and the female typically plays the role of supplier.8 We can label this process the "commodification" of sex.

The prevalence of this new market for sexual access would be impossible without contraception. The lack of contraception would inhibit female suppliers of sexual access due to the risk of abandonment. The male would be inhibited by potential legal liability for any unwanted birth. Contraception has removed the natural barriers to sexual participation. In this sex market, parties are now free to create all sorts of relationships from highly transient encounters to more long-lasting living arrangements, all dependent on whether the fickle ambitions of the parties converge or diverge at any given moment. Those who espouse traditional sexual morality are thus faced with a particularly potent challenge by an efficient system that makes virtually any ad hoc sexual arrangement feasible.

How does this affect Catholics? Unfortunately, in the midst of all this change, most young Catholics have not received strong instruction on the virtue of chastity, and many have not even heard the term used in any serious fashion. And, of course, there has been a virtually complete failure to convey the sinfulness of contraception. Young Catholics are aware that contraception is ubiquitous, even in the marriages of their own parents. As expected, this deficient training means that the behavior of young Catholics is by and large no different from that of non-Catholic Americans. If more parish teachers would raise a strong and unambiguous voice early in Catholic catechesis and label contraception an unnatural distortion of normal sexual intercourse, a firm foundation could be set for chastity. Teaching the sinfulness of contraception logically entails the teaching of sex as a marital act oriented to procreation and the nurture of children. By teaching the necessity for marital chastity, the Church sets the stage to teach premarital chastity. If the sexual act is so significant that even married people cannot contracept, then a fortiori single persons have no standing to engage in an act that is intrinsically focused on new life and its nurture within a family. The failure of too many pastors and parents to strongly present the case against contraception has robbed the effort to teach chastity of its logical keystone. Nothing highlights so much the intrinsically sacred nature of the sexual act than the prohibition from tampering with it, even within a valid marriage.

The young Catholic who sees contraception everywhere not surprisingly assumes that sexual activity is extrinsic to marriage and family. Sexual activity becomes a means of self-gratification, whether the gratification is merely that of lustful urges or the slightly more sophisticated gratification of possessing, or being possessed by, another human being to avoid loneliness. And the young Catholic making this deduction is empirically correct. His conclusion that sex is no longer a marital act is an accurate reflection of cultural reality in the modern West.

The teaching of Humanae Vitae is the key to changing this cultural reality because the encyclical goes to the heart of the matter by defining authentic sex as always and intrinsically a marital act. The absence of correct and vigorous teaching has been so pervasive that even using the term "marital act" will probably be met with blank looks among young Catholics unfamiliar with the term. Some parishes require instruction in Natural Family Planning for engaged couples seeking a Catholic marriage. These parishes should be commended because they are the exception to the rule. But by the time of a firm engagement, a lot of water has flowed under the bridge. The contraceptive mentality is probably firmly implanted. The Church's anti-contraceptive message must begin earlier — as soon as sex education does. The curriculum should focus on the sanctity of the sexual act as shown by the sinfully grave nature of interfering with it. The Church's teaching on sexuality falls into place around the rejection of contraception. Not surprisingly, those who themselves reject that teaching in their own personal lives are unlikely to present a coherent and persuasive message on chastity. Every young listener will know that any cautions against premarital sex are rendered moot by widely available techniques of contraception, and will intuitively dismiss talk about chastity as merely hortatory and unrealistic. If contraception is even mentioned, it is all too commonly followed by the mantra "to follow your own conscience," which to the average American means do what is convenient. This bad situation is compounded by sex education programs that supply detailed information about different techniques of contraception.

It is reasonable to conclude that the failure to forcefully teach the prohibition of contraception undermines any attempt to present a compelling case for chastity. Unfortunately, as noted before, many so-called Catholic teachers personally reject the official teaching on contraception and are therefore unfit to present the complete and logically engaging case for Christian chastity. They cannot mount an adequate challenge to the fornication culture and overcome their students' stubborn awareness that contraception trumps all warnings.

As young Catholics marry and get divorced, some may be astounded to learn, through participation in the annulment process, that the Church may not consider their marriages to be consummated! The culturally shocking principle of canon law that a marriage is not consummated by contraceptive sexual intercourse is a big surprise to those with deficient religious education.9 There are probably many young marriages lacking a genuine sacramental bond because one or both spouses are always in a contraceptive mode, especially while continuing their education or starting a career. The fact that this fundamental Church teaching about the consummation of marriage is so little known testifies to the failure to present the fullness of Catholic moral philosophy concerning the marital act. Young Catholics should know, prior to marriage, that a real marriage bond results from keeping the marital act open to life, not from contraceptive sex. Here is a quintessential teaching moment that should occur much earlier in the lives of Catholics. As an aside, the prevalence of contraception may account in some cases for the ability of marriage tribunals to declare null short-lived marriages without children.

Even more troubling is that the sexual lifestyle of modern Americans cannot be discussed without raising abortion, which the Supreme Court itself recognized in 1992 as a key factor in the way Americans structure their personal relationships.10 Abortion as the ultimate "contraceptive" guarantees that neither career building nor higher education will be risked by fornication. But with abortion, we enter the realm of infanticide. Correct sexual behavior, far from being an expendable puritanical obsession, is a crucial human preoccupation given that it can so easily lead us to take human life. The centrality of sexual conduct must be emphasized to young people. We have recently had the first elected president impeached due to allegations related to underlying sexual immorality. We are now in the midst of a terrible and catastrophic scandal in the American Catholic Church arising from sexual immorality. Any seasoned reporter or police officer can tell you that many homicides result from domestic violence usually tied to issues of sexual betrayal and jealousy, not to mention murderous stalking by former sexual partners. Immoral sexual activity is playing with fire. Sexual immorality has severe and widespread social implications in addition to the psychological and emotional toll on those participating in the fornication culture. All it takes to confirm this point is to reflect on the reality that the most feared disease in the world today is AIDS, which is expected to continue to kill millions worldwide and, of course, originates with sexual behavior. Far from being merely an obsession of the puritanical or repressed, sexual immorality is a powerful force in the destruction of both emotional and physical lives and in marring future generations.

Another astonishing revelation to participants in the fornication culture is that much of modern contraception is abortifacient. The ubiquitous "pill" is known to function in some instances in an abortifacient manner. The IUD is even worse. It is worth wondering how many males and their sexual partners who are on the birth control pill realize that the pill may be functioning as an abortifacient. As a result, the widespread use of contraceptives directly implicates unsuspecting multitudes in the horror of abortion. Young people, especially Catholics, have a right to know these facts before they enter the fornication culture.

What then is the new paradigm needed to address this disastrous situation of ignorance and immorality? As mentioned before, the entire content of Catholic morality must be faithfully presented with the teachings of Humanae Vitae as the keystone for the entire presentation. Furthermore, parental encouragement to delay marriage due to career and education must be severely questioned. People who delay marriage until their late twenties or thirties are more likely to fall into fornication as time passes. Thus, Catholic parents should encourage marriage soon after college graduation, if not earlier. The materialism and consumerism that requires a high income as a prerequisite to marriage is neither Christian nor necessary. The presentation of Natural Family Planning as a modern, reliable scientific approach to delaying conception will make the proposal of earlier marriages more persuasive. In addition, some are now arguing that childbearing should not be delayed given the benefits to children of younger parents and the risks of declining fertility from advancing age in both males and females.

In addition to earlier marriages, courtship must replace dating. Most dating has long been merely a cover for sexual activity. It has long been viewed as a tradeoff between the male offering some tangible social diversions and the female providing the eventual sexual payoff. Yet, this deficient form of socialization has now been surpassed by an even worse trend: the casual hook-up. In the "hook-up," casual social encounters lead to precipitate sexual intimacy which may be no more than "one-night stands" or which may become a transient form of concubinage." Thus, even the social niceties of the traditional date have been stripped away as precipitate copulation or oral sex comes to the fore. This relatively new "hook-up" culture effectively kills traditional dating. Again, an economic perspective is helpful. Males no longer have to spend money to impress females. Males can now achieve sexual gratification without the cash outlay of traditional dating. This bleak stripping away of all pretense at least paves the way for the revival of courtship as opposed to dating.12 In courtship, the goal is to find a spouse, someone with whom you are willing to have children. Courtship takes place in social situations where one-on-one isolated activities are replaced with group or family activities where the focus is on friendship, not on obtaining sexual favors.13 Courtship is by nature limited to those who are seriously considering marriage in the very near future, not years into a lucrative career. When courtship succeeds in pairing off two young people, engagement and marriage can then return to their proper roles as gatekeepers to sexual contact culminating with the honeymoon. All the old notions of engagement, marriage, honeymoon, and "crossing the threshold" regain their old meanings and significance if courtship comes first. Without courtship, the fornication culture robs these traditional concepts of any meaning, much as the traditional white bridal gown now has no necessary connection to virginity. What meaning can a honeymoon have for a couple that has fornicated at whim? What could sharing a first apartment or house mean to individuals who have sexually cohabited with each other or with other people? What special meaning can the marital act have when its practice has long been isolated from marital commitment? In all of these senses, the new paradigm requires a return to traditional notions of courtship that predate both dating and contemporary hook-ups.

Like Catholic family writer Stephen Wood, who has written and lectured on courtship, I am struck by the language of the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes:

It is imperative to give suitable and timely instruction to young people, above all in the heart of their own families, about the dignity of married love, its role and its exercise, so that, having learned the value of chastity, they will be able at a suitable age to engage in honorable courtship and enter upon a marriage of their own (emphasis added).14

These words from Vatican II can serve as a mandate for reinventing the pathways to marriage for young Catholics. In addition to new social pathways to marriage, for Catholics and other Christians, the new paradigm must also contain elements that are distinctively Christian and not just traditional. Marriage must include God. Catholics should be advised to look first to practicing Catholics as future spouses, not out of any bigotry, but out of a firm conviction that marriage is a sacrament, which ideally envisions spouses participating together in the other sacraments of the Church. This approach would caution young people on courtship involving nominal Catholics who don't receive the sacraments regularly or reject the Church's teaching on contraception. The second best candidate for a spouse would at least be a Christian who takes his or her faith seriously and believes that a successful marriage involves a partnership with Jesus Christ entailing growth in sacrificial love. We must be forthright in giving young people these facts and not make courtship a high-risk lottery.

It is ironic that Americans probably do more research on buying a new car or a new house than they do on the background of their potential spouses. Marriage is a life-long commitment and the parties should have a pretty clear idea of the background of their future mate. In an age of widespread fornication, sexual cohabitation, and sexually transmitted diseases, a prudent general disclosure of the extent of past sexual experience is probably necessary as a matter of fundamental honesty and fairness. In this way, there will be no surprises from past connections to upset the equilibrium of the marriage. Such honesty will also create an incentive for honorable conduct. Courtship involves a Catholic or Christian focus on the characteristics of potential spouses and a hard-nosed commitment to truthfulness in disclosing any potential background problems. If any potential spouse is offended by respectful inquiry, then that is a strong sign to be careful. In these delicate matters, a prudent, experienced, and orthodox priest, preferably a regular confessor, may be consulted. Disclosure need not be so specific as to be unnecessarily prurient or shocking to the other party, especially if the offending person has already received absolution for their past behavior or plans to do so shortly. Talking about the past is also an opportune time to review the significance of Christian forgiveness and the reality of God's mercy for the entire life of the marriage. Given today's realities, both parties will probably have need of mutual forgiveness for past sexual behavior.

The issue of past behavior also raises a crucial point apparently ignored by some who prepare couples for marriage: the necessity for a general confession by both parties prior to the marriage. The concept of a general confession must first be carefully explained to all involved. In this age of weak catechesis, nothing can be taken for granted, especially when it comes to the sacrament of penance. A general confession provides a forum not only for the resolution of past issues, such as promiscuity, abortion, or contraception, but also for confronting previously unaddressed vices such as anger, lying, manipulation, and materialism. Spiritually, it prepares both parties to receive the fullness of the grace of sacramental marriage from the inception of the marriage.

In addition, joint and regular participation in the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist should be explicitly emphasized as a serious and highly beneficial obligation of a genuine Catholic marriage. All of this explicit advice from a priest will set the stage for a mature and clear-eyed commitment to a lifelong marriage. Clerics who fail to give such explicit advice are in effect undermining the reception of the sacrament of matrimony, regardless of their good intentions and kindly tact. Like all sacraments, matrimony requires proper disposition for the grace of the sacrament to work unhindered. The power of God is indeed present in every sacrament independently of "the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient," as noted by St. Thomas Aquinas.15 But as the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, "the fruits of the sacrament also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them" (paragraph 1128). Couples should also be informed that, as they grow in holiness during the marriage, the grace of God first bestowed on them at the marriage ceremony continues to transform them. Thus, couples who look back with regret at their lack of proper marriage preparation can still seek the fullness of God's transformation in their present lives.

All of this explicitly Christian preparation will be best served in the long run by a strong philosophical framework for marriage. Such a philosophy will also make the case for the evil of contraception. The ideal painted by Father Paul Quay, S.J., is instructive: "The yielding of one's body to another is, thus, the natural symbol of willingness to become father or mother, of yearning to make one's partner mother or father, of the love which desires that exalted physical, mental, and spiritual maturity for one's partner which comes only from parenthood."16 The sex act which is intrinsically a marital act is also intrinsically a parental act. The Catholic teaching against contraception is not an obstacle or a burden. It is the keystone to a Christian understanding of sex and marriage.

Another writer who helpfully focuses the issues surrounding sexuality is John P. Kippley of the Couple to Couple League based in Cincinnati, which works to spread the message that natural family planning is doable, reliable, and scientific. Kippley offers a theology of sex that is easy to understand and which is in radical contrast to the modern view of sex as a meaningless form of recreation and accommodation. Kippley proposes a covenant theology of sex which views each act of sexual intercourse as "intended by God to be at least implicitly a renewal of the marriage covenant."17 Contraceptive sex is immoral because it violates the "unreserved gift" of self in the marriage covenant.18 This covenant theology of sex also explains the evil of non-marital sexual activity (whether in the form of fornication, adultery, homosexual activity, masturbation, oral sex, or sodomy) in which no covenant is present for renewal.19 Kippley does not hesitate to explicitly set forth the minimum markers for moral sexual activity:

1. The man and woman must be validly married to each other;

2. The act must not be one of marital rape;

3. The act must not be positively and intentionally closed to the transmission of life, i.e., it must be an act of non-contraceptive, non-sterilized, completed genital-genital intercourse (emphasis added).20

Given his long experience in counseling couples, Kippley's minimum markers for sexual activity are explicit as to the demands of marital chastity. I dare say that Kippley's exposition of the requirements of marital chastity, particularly the detailed third minimum requirement, will be news to many, especially younger, married Catholics. Marriage preparation that does not include the available pamphlets and materials authored by Kippley for the Couple to Couple League, or similarly specific information, is likely to be inadequate, ambiguous, and unfocused, and will probably end up sowing more confusion and indifference in the minds of engaged couples. Those parishes that require marriage preparation in the Kippley style should be commended and held up as examples.

An honest recognition of the chaotic state of modern sexuality and a hard-nosed implementation of the type of practical and sacramental measures described above will create the conditions for single and married people to find the happiness for which God created them. And that, after all, is what any focus on sexual morality is all about anyway.


1 For an interesting discussion on why annulments have increased dramatically in the United States, see the commentary by Rev. Michael Smith Foster, J.C.D., in "How can a Marriage be Declared Null?" found at the Archdiocese of Boston website at (His comments are found in the answer to question 13.)

2 For documentation of the long-term effects of divorce on children, see the work of Judith S. Wallerstein. The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study, pp. 150-51, 288-93 (N.Y.: Hyperion 2000), who has undertaken a long-term longitudinal study of such children and the effects of parental divorce on their own relationships as young adults.

3 Reuters, "Study: 2 Guys can afford to wait to marry,'" (6/27/02).

4 Ibid. (quoting David Popenoe of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University).

5 Ibid.

6 Jennifer J. Frost et al., Teenage Sexual & Reproductive Behavior in Developed Countries, Occasional Report No. 8, p. 9 (N.Y.: The Alan Guttmacher Institute November 2001) (guttmacher. org).

7 Ibid.

8/9 I credit author Wendy Shalit for first inspiring me to see the usefulness of economic analogies in discussing modern sexual practices. See Wendy Shalit, A Return to Modesty, pp. 230-31 (N.Y.: Simon & Schuster 1999) (discussing the "cartel of virtue").

10 John A. Hardon, S.J., Pocket Catholic Dictionary, p. 91 (under "Consummated Marriage") (N.Y.: Image/Doubleday 1985); Hardon, Pocket Catholic Catechism, p. 196 (N.Y: Image/Doubleday 1989); Hardon, The Question & Answer Catholic Catechism, p. 283 (N.Y: Image/Doubleday 1981) (Question no. 1435). See also Canons 1061.1 & 1141, Code of Canon Law (1983).

11 Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992).

12 Wendy Shalit, A Return to Modesty, pp. 27-30 (N.Y: Simon & Schuster 1999). The value of this book, especially for young educated Catholics, cannot be overestimated. By the way, the author is Jewish. See also pp. 60-62 on the problem of coed college dormitories.

13 I first encountered the initially surprising argument for modern courtship in the work of Catholic convert Stephen Wood. He has recently published The ABC's of Choosing a Good Husband: How to Find & Marry a Great Guy (Port Charlotte, FL: Family Life Center Publications 2001) (recently reviewed favorably in the June 2002 issue of Homiletic & Pastoral Review). The title of the book reflects what others, like author Wendy Shalit, have said: the initiative for changing the dynamics of the current state of male-female relations lies with young women demanding better treatment.

14 See Johann Christoph Arnold, A Plea for Purity: Sex, Marriage & God, pp. 87-94 (Farmington, Pa.: The Plough Publishing House 1996) (foreword by Mother Teresa). For a recent example of how one Catholic parish exemplifies the search for an alternative to dating, see Kate Ernsting, "Beyond Dating," Credo (June 2001) (found at, under "Current Issues-Parenting"),

15 Quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 1632.

16 Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 1128.

17 Paul M. Quay, S.J., "Contraception and Conjugal Love," reprinted in Why Humanae Vitae Was Right: A Reader, ed. Janet E. Smith (San Francisco: Ignatius Press 1993), p. 32.

18 John F. Kippley, "A Covenant Theology of Human Sexuality," reprinted in Why Humanae Vitae was Right: A Reader, ed. Janet E. Smith (San Francisco: Ignatius Press 1993), p. 282 (hereinafter "Kippley").

19 Kippley, p. 294.

20 Kippley, p. 296.

21 Kippley, p. 302.

Mr. Oswald Sobrino is a free-lance writer trained as a lawyer. His articles have appeared in Catholic Faith and New Oxford Review. He is also a frequent contributor to the web magazine His law degree is from Loyola Law School (New Orleans), and his M.A. degree in economics is from Cleveland State University. He has taught economics at the university level and is presently pursuing graduate studies in pastoral theology. This is his first article for HPR.

© Ignatius Press 2003.

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